I got to know about Sarah Hall when I read reviews of her book ‘How to Paint a Dead Man’. Most of the reviews raved about the author and this book. I went and got the book, but postponed reading it for later. Then I discovered that one her novels ‘The Electric Michelangelo’ was shortlisted for the Booker and so I went and got that too. During one of my subsequent visits to the bookshop, I saw ‘The Carhullan Army’ and I didn’t want to leave that, and so got that too. Unfortunately, all the books ended up on my bookshelf, unread. You might think that I am crazy for getting so many books by the same writer and not reading them immediately, but I was in one of those book acquiring sprees those days – if I discovered a new writer who I thought I might like, I went and got many books by the same writer. Those book acquiring sprees were crazy. I am glad I am out of them now. This week when I was looking for a new book to read and I wasn’t happy with any of the choices that were available, I thought I will read ‘The Carhullan Army’. It had all the things I was looking for at that point – a comfortable size which is not very long (207 pages), comfortable font-size and an attractive first paragraph. I read the first page and it was gripping and before I knew I had dived deep into the book and came out only after I had finished it. Here is what I think.
‘The Carhullan Army’ is set in a dystopian world in the future. England is ruled by a totalitarian government headed by the ‘Authority’, elections have been suspended, freedom has been curtailed, people are sharing apartments and are in meaningless jobs, women are fitted with contraceptive devices, wars are waged across the world and the country is falling apart. An unnamed woman narrates her story as it happened at this time. She calls herself Sister and refuses to reveal her real name. She seems to be in prison and the story seems to be her confession. Sister has one of the meaningless jobs in a nearby factory. Her husband Andrew works at the refinery. Their marriage is falling apart. One day the government decides that all women should wear contraceptive devices. Sister tries postponing her turn, but she is not able to do it for long. She feels violated. She thinks about all this for a while. She wants to escape from her situation – from the meaningless job, from the restrictive life, from her joyless marriage. She has heard of a place called Carhullan where there is a commune of women who have managed to create a self-sustaining way of life. This community at Carhullan is outside the confines of the official system and they are treated as ‘Unofficials’. Sister yearns to go away from home and join this commune. One day she gets up early, leaves her home and journeys towards Carhullan. When she reaches there, she doesn’t get a warm welcome. She is treated as an enemy and she is put in isolation. But she survives that. When the women who run the commune at Carhullan discover that Sister has come there to join the commune, her isolation ends. She is warmly welcomed, is made to feel part of the commune and she finds something useful to do. She even falls in love – with another woman. But beautiful times don’t last for long. A dark cloud hovers over the horizon and the women of Carhullan have to decide how to handle the threat. What they do and whether this ideal community survives forms the rest of the story.
I liked ‘The Carhullan Army’ very much. I haven’t read many dystopian novels (I can’t remember reading any except ‘Matched’ by Allie Condie) and so it was interesting to read one. I liked the main character Sister and how the story describes her escape from the confines of her life into a new world and how it transforms her as a person. I also liked the way the love between her and another person in the commune, Shruti, is depicted. I loved Sarah Hall’s wonderful prose and the many beautiful passages in the book. The last sentence in the book gave me goose bumps.
One thing which comes to the top of my mind when I think of this book is that it was gripping from the beginning to the end. It was a real page-turner. I also felt another thing when I read the book. I don’t know whether I am generalizing this without any real evidence – it will be interesting to think about this as I continue reading books by more authors. One of the things I discovered about English women writers was that in their books, the plot always came first. There were no long monologues and philosophical passages unrelated to the story with the plot getting the short shrift. Of course, these books had their beautiful passages, but they were part of the plot and went along with the plot. It is a traditional way of storytelling and it works wonderfully. Whether I read 19th century writers like Jane Austen or George Eliot or modern writers like A.S.Byatt, I noticed this feature consistently in their books. Now I am happy to see that Sarah Hall belongs to the same school of writers who focus on sculpting a good plot. I don’t know when this accent on beautiful passages and philosophical monologues went up and the focus on the plot went down. Many of the literary prize winners these days have plots which can be written in two pages and the rest of the book (that is literally hundreds of pages) is filled up with beautiful passages. I think there is room for both kinds of books in the literary landscape and I hope more writers try to write gripping plots. As for me – I love myself a gripping plot and so I am happy that this book was very satisfying that way. I can’t wait to read more books by Sarah Hall now.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
But now I was safely away, beyond exposure and explanation. I was alone. Here in the empty Lakeland village I couldn’t have explained to anyone exactly how secure I felt, even if there had been someone around to listen to me. The village reverberated with silence, with human absence. There was not a soul to be found and I liked it. It had been so long since I had felt that. Even on the Beacon Hill above Rith I could see people moving in the streets and I knew they were close by. Here I was breathing air that no one else’s breath competed for. I was no longer complicit in a wrecked and regulated existence. I was not its sterile subject.
Sitting beside me she seemed too inanimate for her voltage, too kinetic under her restfulness. It was as if her skin could barely contain the essence of her.
Our company seemed defined by a gentle sadness now, as if we had never really had the opportunity to fall out of love, and everything begun had been curtailed instead of aborted.
I might have walked away completely, avoided her around the farm, to make it all easier, for myself at least, attempting to convert the relationship into a mistake in my head. But she made a point of maintaining a bond. She offered to wash my clothes with hers, left flowers on the crate next to my bunk. There was more grace in her than I could have managed, and without hers I would have found none. It brought a gentle ache to my chest to have her hug me at the end of a dinner shift and then walk away to her bed, or rest a hand on my shoulder and ask if I was faring OK when she saw my cuts and bruises, my newly shaved head…Shruti held back, as I did. Instead, she offered me a quiet, spiritual friendship.
Have you read ‘The Carhullan Army’ by Sarah Hall? What do you think about it?